Trustees | Freedom of Expression

How colleges can manage ‘flashpoints’ of unrest on campus

EDUCATION DIVE   |  September 26, 2018 by Hallie Busta

Dive Brief:

  • College campuses are more diverse, global and polarized than ever — and everyone is on social media, said Barbee Oakes, chief diversity officer at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas during a panel held by the Education Writers Association this week in Las Vegas. That’s raising the stakes for higher ed crisis response in an era defined by increased unrest concerning issues of diversity and civility on campus.
  • Oakes noted that most such incidents at UNLV do not rise to the level of a reportable hate crime, citing instead frequent microaggressions that spur students to take to social media. “These become flashpoints in the news cycle, when they need to be put into context,” said Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life at American University, in Washington, D.C.
  • The pair cautioned administrators to be measured in their responses, including weighing the nature of the offense, determining whether outside groups were involved, and considering the safety and security of the campus community, as well as the right to free speech, when deciding whether and how much alarm to raise.

Dive Insight:

“Students are seeking to express their voice whether they’re from a marginalized identity or the majority,” Oakes said during the session, highlighting the ongoing challenge of managing the right to free speech on campus.

Speakers have been the subject of several high-profile cases of free speech-related unrest on campuses in recent years. As of January 2018, more than 30 colleges and university systems adopted or endorsed a set of principles on effective counter-speech. A related report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni recommend establishing a campus culture of free speech with clear expectations, maintaining the right to peacefully protest and allowing the university to maintain neutral.

College presidents play an important role in addressing related unrest on campus and hearing out student concerns to help keep the situation under control, according to a report from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Oakes said the shift to social media as a platform for students to discuss racism started during protests at the University of Missouri in 2015 concerning the treatment of black students on campus. The situation spurred the university to change its leadership, hire a diversity officer and start a race relations committee, but enrollment fell nearly 13% from the fall of 2015 to the fall of 2017, Inside Higher Ed reported.

Several higher ed leaders focused on diversity and civility told Education Dive earlier this summer how they’re approaching the issue on campus as well as areas for improvement. They noted factors including the need for hiring more diverse faculty, helping students understand the importance of civility when exercising their free speech rights, and training campus community members to recognize and eliminate racial bias in their interactions.


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